Approximately 40 million tonnes of electronic waste is generated globally each year, and due to the high cost of proper disposal, much of it ends up in landfills. Printer cartridges, like other electronic waste, do not break down easily and the leftover ink contains dangerous substances that can pollute the environment and cause health problems.
In South Africa, about one million printer cartridges are imported each month, with most of them ending up in local landfills. There are companies that collect the empty ones and refurbish them for resale, but many cartridges are too damaged and are instead thrown away. As a result, there is a great need in South Africa and the rest of the continent for this waste to be disposed of in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way.
In 2011, a non-profit organization called greenABLE was established in Pinetown, South Africa, by a printer cartridge remanufacturing company called greenOffice. greenABLE addresses the problem of printer cartridge waste with a revolutionary new idea: a sorting and recycling facility that prevents printer cartridge waste from going to the landfill, and provides employment to people living with disabilities.
At the greenABLE facility, the first of its kind in South Africa, the cartridges are collected by greenAGENTs. They run their own cartridge collection business and sell them back to the facility, and many of them do so even with mobility-restricting disabilities. At the facility, employees receive training and then go to work cleaning and separating the cartridges into 100% recyclable metal and plastic components. The components are sold to companies who manufacture items such as roof tiles and manhole covers from them. greenABLE also offers scholarships to employees, allowing them to attend school, achieve an education, and enter the job market.
Environment and Economy
Since their start in 2011, greenABLE has employed 28 staff who support over 100 dependents with their jobs. greenABLE has also provided training and education scholarships to 37 people with physical disabilities. They organization recycles over 300,000 cartridges per year, meaning that they divert about 220 tonnes of waste from landfills annually. The money generated from the sale of recycled materials is used to pay for rental of the facility, and external funding supports the rest of their programming.
There are hopes to expand the program in the future to open more facilities in South Africa and in neighbouring countries. There is a market for the materials and demand for recycled plastic is particularly high, as the roof tiles are used by the government in their low-cost housing initiatives. greenABLE estimates that the printer cartridge recycling industry could create over 750 new jobs in South Africa alone.
The organization recently won a South African SEED Initiative Award for its innovative work. They have achieved impressive results, but the founders of the organization do not want to stop there. They believe that working in the recycling facility or as a greenAGENT is meant to be a stepping stone to better future employment for disabled people.
Carla Higgs, greenABLE’s Sustainability Leader, says that their aim is for greenABLE to serve as an incubator where people can gain work experience and improve their skills so that they can be employed in better positions. In the meantime, they are empowering disadvantaged people and helping them achieve self-worth, while educating the local community and making a meaningful contribution to the environment.